This is an installment in a special series, Startup Year One, interviewing startup founders about the major lessons they learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
While it might seem counterintuitive, getting dressed for work—even for working at home—is actually an even greater burden and source of anxiety for women professionals in the Zoom era.
So says Showly Wang, who with cofounder Amy Jiang, recently launched Pairess, a self-described feminist, direct-to-consumer fashion brand on a mission to help women succeed professionally with stylish apparel that’s also functional. (Think real pockets that actually fit a phone and machine washable fabrics.)
Fortune recently spoke with Wang and Jiang about how the first few months are going and what the pair plans to do next.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Could you tell me a bit about your backgrounds? What were you doing professionally prior to launching Pairess?
Amy Jiang: I graduated from Harvard in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in statistics, and have experience working in strategic and analytical roles. Before Pairess, I was on the strategy and analytics team at Affirm, where Showly and I worked closely together. My role was to prioritize, measure, and execute on different product initiatives including Affirm’s in-store expansion and online checkout optimization. Prior to that, I worked in management consulting, leading projects for retail banks on their risk, pricing, and branch network strategies. It was actually during this job where I realized the huge gap in the women’s workwear market. I hated having to go to the dry cleaners every week and not having pockets to put my badge, phone, and wallet in while running around and outside the office. My work clothes were also tight and restrictive, and I dreaded getting dressed for work everyday.
Showly Wang: I graduated from Stanford in 2013, and my background is in luxury apparel and retail technology. From a young age, I loved fashion, but considered it only a hobby until I job shadowed a category manager at Sephora and interned at Oscar de la Renta, which led me to a buying office role at Neiman Marcus Group. There I learned the ins and outs of running an omnichannel apparel business and had an opportunity to join Neiman’s e-commerce product management team, working with marketing and engineering to grow online revenue. I also was working as a part-time stylist for Stitch Fix, because I missed the creative side of my buying office role. These two experiences made me fascinated with digital innovation within retail and customer experience, and I was inspired to pivot to retail consumer technology at Affirm, where I led marketing and operations for in-store products, launching and growing consumer adoption with the company’s largest partners.
What inspired the launch of Pairess? What makes it ideal for the new “work from home” environment?
Jiang: Pairess, which is a portmanteau for “a pair of pants and a dress,” makes clothes for work that are machine-washable, are super comfortable, and have big roomy pockets. We were inspired to start Pairess by our personal pain points with our work clothes, but what really galvanized us to take the leap was learning that the lack of functionality in women’s clothes is rooted in gender stereotypes that value women for their appearance over what they can accomplish. So as two feminists, we built Pairess to give women a stylish and functional work wardrobe that makes life easier, so that clothes are the least of their worries while they’re out here breaking the glass ceiling.
Wang: Even before the pandemic, it was critical to us to balance fashion and function in women’s work wardrobes, and this core design principle makes our pieces ideal for a work-from-home wardrobe. Consumers are looking for clothes that are comfy like pajamas but still polished and professional enough for their most important video calls. We had one customer tell us she wore our lounge set in a video meeting with her all-male C-suite, and that it was empowering to be dressed and ready for the meeting while feeling like she was wearing pajamas. We want our customers to feel empowered when they wear our clothes and to feel a sense of “I can accomplish whatever I want and nothing, least of all my clothes, will hold me back.”
Retailers have taken quite a hit during the pandemic, especially for traditional workwear sellers. So the timing seems hit or miss. What has it been like opening a D2C clothing business during a pandemic? What has it been like to work with supply chain partners and develop the initial capsule collection?
Wang: We feel lucky to have launched during the pandemic, because it’s made our clothes even more relevant, but it has certainly come with challenges. We actually had plans to launch a capsule of office clothes in April 2020 and had to pause as our supply chain partners in Manhattan were forced to shut down. We took that time to ask women about their work-from-home wardrobe frustrations, which led us to pivot into creating a “work-from-anywhere” wardrobe with chic loungewear, tops for Zoom, and polished pants that felt like pajamas. When our partners safely reopened in June, we restarted parts of the design process to create this new capsule. We speedily worked with our pattern maker and fit model (with masks and socially distanced) to design a lounge set and turned our dresses into tops.
The pandemic also upended core parts of our go-to-market strategy which was centered around physical pop-up events and activating graduates who were about to enter the workforce or start summer internships. We’re now focused on reaching digital networks of professional women and are keeping an eye on what school and work environments look like throughout the fall. We’re definitely seeing the glass as half full, as the pandemic has created some favorable conditions for our market and evened the playing field. Incumbent retailers like Banana Republic and Ann Taylor were already on the decline and are now failing even faster. Established brands are pulling back their marketing budgets, trying to save their cash to weather the storm. This leaves a significant opportunity for us to seize.
Jiang: Our supply chain partners have been incredible to work with. We’re proud to partner with local women-run factories in New York City who work with well-known designer brands, providing deep expertise and the highest quality manufacturing. We also only use fabrics that pass quality and durability tests with the highest ratings, and when possible, try to use surplus material that we purchase from local NYC brands that otherwise would go to waste. It’s been a bit of trial and error, but our partners are extremely collaborative and patient with us as we learn manufacturing on the fly. Luckily, we have a clear vision of the clothes we want to make, and between great partners and a lot of Googling, we’ve been able to bring it to life.
That said, what has it been like to secure funding for Pairess? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?
Jiang: We’re currently bootstrapped with our own personal savings, which has taught us to be really frugal and scrappy. We’ll likely need to raise outside money once we’ve achieved a few key milestones and have more traction.
Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Pairess in the market?
Jiang: We aim to be the first workwear brand that women turn to whether they’re working from home or from an office, that understands their wardrobe needs in all work-related environments. Back in our earliest days when we were doing market research and interviewing different women, we’d ask for their favorite casual clothing brands. And they’d list out a bunch of brands like Anthropologie, Madewell, etc., but when we asked the same question for their work clothes, they’d pause and struggle to find an answer: “Uh, I go to Macy’s or Nordstrom. Maybe Ann Taylor. But their clothes never fit right.” In five years, we want women to excitedly answer this question with “Pairess.”
Wang: The current definition of “workwear” has expanded to include the most casual end of the spectrum, but we do also believe that office spaces will reopen in certain industries, creating an opportunity to further disrupt the traditional workwear space with our approach of balancing aesthetics and function. Women have been conditioned to expect a tradeoff between aesthetics and functionality in their fashion choices, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We have a lofty long-term goal of shifting fashion design standards so women expect stylish, beautiful products that are also high-functioning and comfortable. The pandemic has already accelerated this shift in consumer behavior, and this is where the future of fashion will be.
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